When I was 11 years old, my mother had no choice but to move my grandmother into a nursing home. The change was difficult for me. "Granny" had been a constant presence in my life. She never failed to welcome me home from school, listen with genuine interest, and find the humor in my silly antics.
As CEO of an assisted living company I have seen this family transition play out. Moving a grandparent is emotionally difficult. However, it can be handled with a lot less difficulty when caregivers involve the grandchildren.
My mother went to great lengths to ensure that I maintained a close relationship with my grandmother, and it helped ease what was a painful childhood event. Today, I cherish the relationship I had with my grandmother -- both before and after her move.
I've seen many families utilize the following steps to minimize stress and grief -- and they often develop even stronger family bonds.
1) Keep the child in the loop. As soon as you know that a move is definite begin to set the stage for change by explaining the reasons to your children in age-appropriate terms. Help your children to understand that they will still be able to visit and spend time with their grandparent on a regular basis.
2) Change perceptions. Today's assisted living communities are bright, warm, caring, active, communities with upscale amenities such as private living quarters, gourmet meals, exercise rooms and even spas and coffee shops. Describe their grandparent's new home in excited, happy terms, and let the child know that they'll be able to visit frequently.
3) Enlist the child's help. Children love to feel included and you can do this by soliciting a child's advice on some of the key decisions involved in setting up their grandparents' new home away from home. It might include a memento, a book, or a game. By involving children you give them a sense of belonging that will go a long way towards easing any anxiety.
4) Give the child a sense of purpose. Plan to make visits valuable by challenging the child to think about what they can share with Grandma on the next visit. They might choose to bring a favorite game or some kind of meaningful item such as a new toy, a report card, or a piece of artwork, that can stimulate conversation and help keep the grandparent involved in your child's daily life.
5) Encourage connection. Children are sometimes uncomfortable at their loved one's senior living community because they don't feel a sense of belonging. Get them involved in the community by having them introduced to caregivers and other residents. By keeping your child engaged in their grandparent's life and working to establish new traditions, you can help the child build positive feelings for their grandparent's new home--and new memories with their grandparent.
A move to a senior living community may be precipitated by more serious health issues. Parents in these situations can still benefit from the previous advice, but they will need to take additional steps to help their children adjust to, and cope with, these changes.
The key to remember is that, though while health circumstances and living arrangements will likely change over time, the relationship between a grandchild and their grandparent can -- and should -- remain close, memorable and intact.
Dwayne J. Clark is the founder and CEO of Aegis Living, currently with 28 senior living communities in Washington, California, and Nevada, and the author of "My Mother, My Son." Visit him online at www.mymothermyson.com.